Retirement payouts a school budget issue

AMHERST – Real progress in keeping school costs down will be made over the long term through contract negotiations.

That was the message from school officials during the Amherst School District’s Feb. 7 Deliberative Session.

In particular, teachers’ retirement benefits need to change, School Board Chairwoman Amy Facey said, to modify a retirement package that could mean $10 million worth of district liabilities.

Under the current contract, retiring Amherst teachers in the district for prekindergarten through eighth grade 8 receive around $80,000-$90,000 per teacher, along with payments from the New Hampshire Retirement System.

Negotiations between the board and the Amherst Education Association stalled in January over the issue and are set to resume in late summer.

“The issue is significant,” Facey said, because the costly payouts limit the number of teachers the district can afford to retire annually.

Those payouts add to the district’s nondiscretionary spending, which went up by more than $1 million, Facey said.

Health benefits and the downshifting of state retirement costs onto school districts are also driving the budget up, she said, and this year, so were increases in transportation costs and out-of-district tuition.

In an attempt to offset the increases, the board eliminated some staff positions, including a preschool coordinator, a part-time special education teacher and technical support at the middle school.

The only discretionary increase is for science textbooks.

In its Jan. 11 statement about the teachers’ contract negotiations, the Amherst School Board said it proposed a retirement package that would have grandfathered some teachers who were closest to retirement and shifted others to a plan in which the board would make contributions to a tax-sheltered annuity in the employee’s name.

Board Co-Chairman James Manning said getting the budget under control is a long-term project dependent on contract negotiations.

There are only two money articles on the district warrant this year: the $25.4 million operating budget and an article for $50,000 to be added to a capital reserve fund for educating students with disabilities.

The tax impact of the operating budget would be 55 cents per thousand, while the tax impact of the default budget would be 67 cents.

An amendment from resident Margaret McCabe to cut the operating budget by about $200,000 was defeated by an overwhelming margin.

McCabe said she was upset that the default budget is higher than the operating budget.

“You’ve taken away my right as a voter,” she said.

District Business Administrator Adam Steel said the default budget was calculated the same way it always has been, according to state statute, and that lower debt service brought the operating budget down.

Manning recommended that residents who don’t like the way it’s calculated call their legislators.

Both the School Board and Ways & Means Committee recommend the budget unanimously, but committee Co-Chairman John Glover said unhappiness about school costs has been “brewing in this town for a long time.” He said the committee hopes that successful contract negotiations “will start chipping away” at costs.

“It was built up over time, and it will take time to make an adjustment,” he said.

The Deliberative Session is the first part of the annual meeting, and town elections, the second part, will take place from 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, at Souhegan High School. Voters will decide on the two warrant articles and elect School District officers, including two School Board members.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.